Good afternoon hockey fans. Tonight the Pens are in Toronto to take on the Maple Leafs in a Halloween showdown at the ACC.
The two teams are coming in on different streaks with the Pens riding a 3-game win streak and having won 6 of the previous 7 games. The Leafs, on the other hand, have lost 3 in a row, including last night in New York against the Rangers, and have only 1 victory this season.
But tonight’s game is all about one man.
PRODIGAL SON Pens winger Phil Kessel returns to the city of Toronto tonight for the first time.
“It feels good,” Kessel said of his return. “Obviously, this was home for me for a long time. I always consider it home. I love this city. It’s a strange feeling, but I’m happy to be back.”
Kessel played the previous 6 seasons for the Leafs and led them in scoring every year. Kessel, who is tied for the team lead with 4 goals, recorded 181 goals and 394 points during his years in Toronto.
Though he had a lot of individual success during his tenure, he doesn’t expect to be warmly received.
“I figure there will be some boos,” Kessel joked. “That’s always how it is. But I loved my time here. I don’t regret anything. It should be fun tonight.”
Kessel has already faced his former club in a 2-1 Pens’ victory on Oct. 17 in Pittsburgh. He had 2 shots in over 20 minutes of ice time. Kessel had a chance right in the slot to score, but his shot went just wide of the post.
Tonight will be Kessel’s first game in Toronto since April 11 of last season when he had a goal and an assist against Montreal in his final game as a Maple Leaf. Still, he said it won’t be weird sitting on the visitors bench.
“I played against the Leafs my first three years in the league so I’ve been in (the visiting) dressing room before,” Kessel said. “It’s another game. I’m going to try and have fun and go get another win.”
FEHR DEBUT Pens forward Eric Fehr is poised to return to the ice and make his team debut tonight against the Leafs.
“It’s great that I can come in today with Phil coming back to Toronto so I can slide in under the radar and not have to worry about anything,” Fehr joked. “It’s great to get in there and play and do what I have to do.”
“He’s a versatile player,” head coach Mike Johnston said. “He can play wing, he can play center. He’s very good on draws. He’s a good penalty killer. He adds some size to our lineup. He was a big addition to our group in the summer.”
Fehr, who has been out all year following elbow surgery in the summer, missed all of training camp and the preseason. His last NHL regular-season game was May 13.
“Once the season starts there aren’t a lot of contact drills in practice so it’s really hard to get a feel for the way the game is going to be played,” Fehr said. “I know what to expect. When you’re in the mix the timing is a little bit off so that’s something I’ll be working on trying to pick up as quickly as possible today.”
Though he is a natural center, Fehr worked on the wing on the fourth line. Considering it’s been a long time since he’s played a game, starting on the wing is a smart choice by the coaching staff.
“Trying to get my feet wet in the first couple of games it isn’t bad to throw me on the wing and get a feel for the pace of play,” Fehr said.
“In a perfect work I would prefer center,” Fehr admitted. “But if you look down our lineup we have an abundance of great centermen. I’ve played a lot of wing in my career so I have no problem going over to the wing.”
Fehr has been on the ice for the past several months so Johnston expects his conditioning to be as good as it can get without game action.
“Eric has been skating for two months now and working out,” Johnston said. “I anticipate his legs should be pretty good. It’s the game timing for him.”
MORNING SKATE The Pens used the following workflow at their morning skate…
There was no change on their power-play look/units: 1st unit: Letang on midpoint, Kessel on half wall, Hornqvist at net-front, Malkin and Crosby rotating on wall and goal line. 2nd unit: Cole and Maatta flipped on midpoint. Bennett on half wall, Kunitz at net-front. Perron and Bonino rotating on the wall and goal line.
Sprong did not do line rushes with the team, though Johnston didn’t confirm what the lineup will be for be the game.
“We haven’t determined who is out tonight because we have a couple of nagging injuries that we want to check on first,” Johnston said. “Sprong may not be in every night. Sometimes it’s good for a young guy to take a look at the game from up top and get a couple extra days of practice.”
Sprong has played in 8 NHL games this season. He has 1 more game left before the team must decide whether to keep him in Pittsburgh and start the first year of his entry-level contract or return him to juniors.
GAME INFO Where: Air Canada Centre When: Saturday, 7 p.m. TV: ROOT Sports Radio: 105.9 the X, the Penguins Radio Network Social: @penguins, @PensInsideScoopo